Early Developments

The Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. - 220 C.E.) saw an increasing interest in the Taode jing, Zhuangzi, and other related texts on the part of the Chinese literati — educated members of the upper classes who pursued philosophy, literature, painting, and other arts.  A flourishing center for this type of learning was established by Liu An, also known as Huainanzi (c. 180-122 B.C.E.), who was ruler of the state of Huainan and a grandson of the founder of the Han dynasty.  Liu An was a brilliant scholar who was more interested in learning than politics, although he did engage twice with rebellious movements and eventually committed suicide to avoid punishment for his role in an unsuccessful coup.  Legend has it that he did not actually die, but became an immortal.

Liu An's favorite text was the Zhuangzi, and the discourse at his court favored the Taoist school of thought over Confucianism.  He invited philosophers, poets, and masters of esoteric practices to his court.  Only one text remains from this period, a compilation of the writing of eight scholars that is now known as the Huainanzi.  The Huainanzi synthesized the philosophies of the Taode jing and Zhuangzi, describes a number of self-cultivation techniques, and integrates both the texts and the techniques with the proto-scientific theories of yin/yang and the Five Agents

Liu An's school was similar to a larger school of thought called Huanglao Tao.  Followers of Huanglao Tao revered the teachings of Laozi and also the mythical Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), to whom several texts on methods of seeking immortality were attributed.  They advocated local autonomy and the pursuit of simplicity and self-sufficiency.  Several officials who were followers of this school attempted to lead by the laissez-faire methods recommended in the Taode jing.

A different take on literati Taoism was represented by the legendary group of figures called the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, who were believed to have lived in the 3rd century C.E. but became popular from the 4th century onward.  The Seven Sages, all admirers of Laozi and Zhuangzi, were said to have gathered together to write poems, criticize the government, and prepare manuals of alchemical practices.  Eventually retreating to the countryside to avoid political intrigue, they were portrayed as having lived simple, rustic lives, drinking and writing poetry.  Later, members of the nobility sometimes sought to imitate the Seven Sages; this often took the form of gathering with one's friends and drinking too much.  The Seven Sages also became a favorite theme of paintings, and they remain popular figures in Chinese culture today.

Throughout Chinese history, immortals have also been popular subjects of painting, literature, and folktales.  In the 1st and 2nd centuries C.E., there was a surge in the popularity of stories about the lives of individuals who had become immortal, and in practices that were believed to lead to longevity, perhaps even to immortality.  While some of these immortals were said to be individuals who had practiced the arts of longevity, others were simply "taken away" and transformed.  Early texts mention shrines, festivals, groups of worshippers, and teachers affiliated with some of the immortals, but none of these early organizations has survived.

Some individuals looked to alchemical techniques in hopes of attaining immortality.  One comprehensive source about these practices, which date back into antiquity, was Ge Hong (283-343 C.E.), who was nicknamed "The Master Who Embraces Simplicity."  According to his autobiography, Ge Hong's father died when he was 13, so he worked as a laborer cultivating his family's land.  He described himself as shallow, poorly educated but widely read, stupid, forgetful, lazy, untalented, unsophisticated, sickly, and unattractive . . . and a prolific writer, though not a particularly good one. 

Among Ge Hong's few surviving writings is his Nei pien, or Inner Chapters, which he described as belonging to the "Taoist school."  Ge Hong's Nei pien recounted what he had learned about "things out of the ordinary," especially practices for extending life.  While the Nei pien provides a number of detailed formulas for attaining immortality, Ge Hong stated that he was too poor to obtain all of the necessary ingredients, so he had never actually tried any of them and could not guarantee their effectiveness.  

In addition to literati Taoists, and to legends and practices surrounding immortality, one other element of early Chinese culture would influence the emergence of Taoist religious organizations toward the end of the Han dynasty — the fangshi.   The origin of the fangshi is uncertain; the word has been translated as "magicians," "recipe masters," or "specialists in occult prescriptions."  They may have been a later form of the wu, a type of shaman who was involved in certain rituals at court during the Zhou and possibly the Shang dynasty.

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